New Zealand left it all out there in a display filled with bravery and belief but it just wasn’t enough in the end as Greece, eventually, secured their spot in the second phase. Emmet Ryan reports from Manila
Being a Tall Black is a vocation because you’ve got to be devoted to dream of this gig. In New Zealand, everything comes a distant second to the All Blacks, their rugby team. In basketball, New Zealand is just that country that Australia has to do better than to qualify for the Olympics. Being a Tall Black is accepting being less than an afterthought on two levels.
Even the name, like most New Zealand national sports teams, is derived from their rugby big brothers. Their identity is secondary to that and they’re usually not even that tall. The best chance a Tall Black will ever get at being a hero is if they make sure Beauden Barrett looks both ways before crossing the road.
Tell that to Shea Ili, Finn Delany, Reuben Te Rangi or any of the others that went to war in Manila against a Greece side that was expected to brush them aside with ease. On this night, they through everything they had at their bigger, stronger, faster, and just plain better opponents. For 30 minutes, they made Greece look less than ordinary and there was a chance to dream.
There was definitely an extra edge to this one. Finn Delany whacked Thanasis Antetokounmpo in the gut, mildly, on the first possession to set the tone. Thanasis sold it like he was in WWE but it was still the sign we needed that this one was going to be a fight. Greece may have come into this with far more talent than their opponents but the Tall Blacks were ready for a brawl.
Georgios Papagiannis had a big rejection on Isaac Fotu midway through the first quarter to demonstrate his comical length advantage over anyone on the New Zealand roster and we had a bruiser going nicely. None of the free scoring we witnessed through a series of borderline exhibition games in some of the mismatches so far in Manila. It was just two teams ready to tear lumps out of each other.
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The 15 point first quarter was Greece’s worst since 2010, against Russia, as the defensive grip of the Tall Blacks held firm early. For Dimitris Itoudis, the only thing working for him was that comical length advantage of Papagiannis as his side played a predictable style that ended up giving the underdogs plenty of room to exploit from the outside.
Mid Q2, the point where I expected Greece to step up a bit, and New Zealand tasted that rarified air. Reuben Te Rangi from deep and they had a double-digit lead. This was not the script as Greece were scoring barely a point a minute in a turgid first half outing.
The closing stages of the half felt crucial. New Zealand has built up a nice lead but they needed to show they had the gas to maintain it, to not allow Greece to make it more manageable through sheer force of will. The Greeks certainly got a bit better offensively, mostly thanks to Ioannis Papapetrou, but Te Rangi was a one man air-raid out there. It was far from over but the Greeks had cause for panic at the break.BallinEurope has a book, a real life actual book called I Like it Loud, and you can buy it on Amazon now. It’s here as a book and here in Kindle form.
Reality is awfully cruel. Within two minutes of the game starting, this one felt like a quick catch-up job for a Greek side that had finally woken from its slumber. It was back within two possessions within two minutes and the Greeks appeared to have found their fundamental basketball ability again.
That’s how the script was supposed to go but Thanasis picked up his 4th foul with 5.30 left in the third as New Zealand’s D became all about harrying and pestering the Greeks. It must have been desperately irritating for Thomas Walkup and the rest but it was proving effective for the Tall Blacks as they dragged Greece back into the pit of stress.
Unfortunately for the Tall Blacks, that didn’t apply to Papapetrou who was a sea of calm as he continued to chip away and by the mid-point of the quarter it was back to a single possession game. Greece, being the stuttering mess they otherwise were, couldn’t capitalise on that down the stretch of the third but it was still looking omninous entering the final frame.
New Zealand’s hopes of progression ended with 8.16 left in the fourth. A three from Giannoulis Larentzakis finally put the Greeks back in front and the crisis was over. Everything after that was pure pluck and fight from New Zealand but once the chasedown was complete, everything else was academic.
Greece will be relieved but they must now learn the hard lessons that came from the fright they got. The performance mirrors 2017 in all too many respects. At that EuroBasket, they looked awful with an under strength roster in the group stage and faced an unbeaten Lithuania in an elimination game. The circumstances are eerily familiar this time around although, purely technically, it’s not quite an elimination game on Friday. Don’t tell that to the Greek fans who sat through tonight.